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“Who will love you if you never tell the truth?”
This question carries a universality beholden to the human condition, which seeks intimacy but simultaneously fears it. It is a question posed by Janet Mock, who is hesitant to reveal certain aspects of her life to Aaron, the man she loves, but it is also one experienced by all of us.
The beauty of Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness, is that it is both personal and universal; her story is her own, but it also transcends the specificity of her life narrative to touch all of us, and especially those within the LGBT community who identify as trans women of color.
Mock is weary of speaking for, or representing, a community because she is mindful of the fact that no two personal narratives are the same. “On the one hand, there are through lines, common elements in our journeys as trans women, that are undeniable,” she writes. “At the same time, plugging people into the ‘transition’ narrative (which I have been subjected to) erases the nuance of experience, the murkiness of identity, and the undeniable influence of race, class, and gender.”
While her life was full of hardship, she recognizes, for instance, that her early transition and the support of her family, who “fortified [her] self-esteem,” are not luxuries afforded to every trans person.
Calling upon her black feminist foremother Audre Lorde, Mock’s objective was to break the silence of her past—because telling stories are revolutionary acts—while at the same time not wanting her entire being to be reduced to trans: “I didn’t want to be othered, reduced to just being trans.” The feature story in Marie Claire that revealed her past to the world, she observes, “was the pivot in which I decided to invite the world into my life, when I chose to acknowledge that though you may not perceive me as trans, I am trans, and being trans—as is being black, Hawaiian, young, and a woman—is an integral part of my experience, one that I have no investment in erasing.”
For a period of time, however, when Mock first arrived into the mainland from Hawaii, she attempted to live her life with her trans identity at the margins. The structure of her memoir, therefore, incorporates a temporal frame in which she decides to tell Aaron about her history. We the reader are placed in Aaron’s position, bestowing an immediate intimacy between Janet the narrator and us.
And she tells us, and Aaron, everything—from being sexually molested as a child to flying to Thailand for her bottom surgery. Most of the book details her youth, and, in one of the book’s most charming passages, she depicts how her younger self found ways to identify with femininity:
My most prized possession was my lanyard of Lip Smackers. Mom bought my first one at Long’s it was green apple-flavored…. I tore it out of the confines of the paper package, which read, ‘All the flavor of being a girl.’ I balled the package in my fist, hiding it from her view. In the car, I draped the black lanyard around my neck with a single green plastic balm dangling. I proudly dangled my girlhood in all its fruitiness. It cost only $2.99.
Interlaced with her personal narrative are allusions and references to a rich tradition of African-American letters, from Lorde to Baldwin, Morrison to Ellison. Less successful, however, are the moments when Mock breaks her narrative with statistics about the LGBT community. The intention—to contextualize her narrative—is clear, yet what these stats do is break the narrative flow. There is such a beautiful, passionate rhythm to Mock’s writing that when she telescopes out of her life it creates a jarring effect.
The question of “realness” is the catalyzing theme of the memoir. “To embody ‘realness,’” Mock explains, “enables trans women to enter spaces with a lower risk of being rebutted or questioned, policed or attacked. ‘Realness’ is a pathway to survival….” Her most profound exposition on “realness” occurs at the end of the text:
I am aware that identifying with what people see versus what’s authentic, meaning who I actually am, involves erasure of parts of myself, my history, my people, my experiences. Living by other people’s definitions and perceptions shrinks us to shells of ourselves, rather than complex people embodying multiple identities. I am a trans woman of color, and that identity has enabled me to be truer to myself, offering me an anchor from which I can uplift my visible blackness, my often invisible trans womanhood, my little-talked-about native Hawaiian heritage, and the many iterations of womanhood they combine.
Realness is not “passing,” neither is it “conforming.” What Mock indicates in this passage is the complexity of a person’s cultural subjectivity, one that is always intersectional, and one whose meanings largely depend on the cultural spaces in which one circulates. What a person can do is to speak her “truth”—she can speak who she is, give agency to her being, and wrest control of her self and her body from the dominant culture. And what Janet comes to realize is that while a person’s entire lived history cannot be erased, but it can be mastered: “No one can destroy their past. You can try your best to cover it up, edit it, run away from it, but the truth will always follow you.”
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More
By Janet Mock
Paperback, 9781476709123, 216 pp.